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1/24/2006
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Microsoft's Web-Design Tools Could Lure Corporate Defections From Mac

As the company provides early looks at its new tools, Web designers and developers say Microsoft could lure Mac shops with XAML support, collaboration features, and simplified UI and app development.

Microsoft will have a tough time luring Mac-centric designers to its Expression product line but it will appeal to Web designers that collaborate with Visual Studio developers, partners say.

On Tuesday, the Redmond, Wash., software giant released the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Microsoft Expression Interactive Designer, formerly code-named Sparkle, and the fourth CTP of Expression Graphic Designer, code-named Acrylic.

The tools, formally named this week, are aimed at interactive Web site designers and graphics designers developing WinFX-based applications on Windows XP and Windows Vista, Microsoft said. Corporate pressure may also force migrations from the Mac, designers say.

The third member of the Expression family, Expression Web Designer, is aimed at Web designers and is still in beta testing. Sources expect the first CTP of Web Designer, formerly code-named Quartz, to be delivered at Microsoft's first show for designers, MIX 06, in Las Vegas in mid-March.

Leading Web design firm Agency.com said Microsoft has a tough sell getting Web designers using Adobe and Macromedia Flash on Apple Computer's Macintosh to switch to less mature tools. But the software giant has a compelling argument for companies that have designers and developers collaborating on .Net projects.

"Most creative designers are on the Macintosh and I won't ask designers to change," said Aman Data, a vice president of technology at Agency.com, New York. "Having said that, the functionality in [Expression] Graphic Designer, like workflow, could add a lot of value in the process between designer and site builder."

Companies may be persuaded to switch from Mac-based tools to Expression because the designs are easier to bring into Visual Studio, observers noted.

"When Microsoft first presented Sparkle and Acrylic to Razorfish, there was a huge amount of resistance," but designers involved in Avalon projects have been "pleasantly surprised," said Jered Cuenco, multimedia developer at Razorfish.

Cuenco has been using Windows Presentation Foundation, code-named Avalon, and Sparkle since last summer on a joint demo project to be unveiled at MIX. His background is in graphic design and multimedia development, primarily using Flash and Director, and he has used both the Mac and PC platforms in design and development.

"Microsoft does have its work cut out for it, though, in trying to gain legitimacy in the design community. There is a category of designers who firmly believe in the Mac platform as the design platform and would never be convinced otherwise, but there is a growing PC design community," said Cuenco.

Microsoft announced plans for its Expression family of design tools at its Professional Developer's Conference last fall. The three products, to be priced at more than $300 a piece, will be offered in suites, Microsoft said.

The Expression suite is best for Windows Vista development, said Nathan Moody, director of creative services at Fluid, a top-notch Web design firm in San Francisco.

"Expression Interactive Designer's built-in layout management and XAML interface tooling is quite robust, and its ability to integrate 3-D into the user experience is certainly compelling for Windows applications," said Moody. "The Expression tools are a solid starting point for sculpting an XAML-driven UI for, say, a rich-experience Windows application."

He and others say Microsoft has a viable shot at adoption among the Mac crowd because of its support for XAML and efforts to simplify rich user interface and Web design on the Windows platform.

"The best designers are above platform bigotry, hating this platform or that platform on an emotional level. The smartest designers use the platform that supports the tools that best solve the final problem," Moody added.

One developer noted the Expression tools will appeal to developers, partners and customers that want to simplify collaboration between their Web designers and .Net developers.

"Today we can build rich interactive sites [with] ASP.Net and Community Server, but it's time-consuming with handoffs between creative and development," said Rob Howard, CEO of Telligent Systems, Dallas, whose firm built Microsoft's MIX 06 site. "Our creative team uses Macs and Windows today but they would prefer to use only Windows. If Microsoft can execute on their vision of simplifying the process of building rich interactive applications, they'll get adoption."

Another developer noted that XAML support in Expressions and Visual Studio 2005 will drive better collaboration and application development for Vista and Windows XP.

"The ability for a designer to export their design in XAML format that can then be imported into Visual Studio [means] the developer doesn't have to spend any time re-creating the great design and can instead just concentrate on adding functionality to the application," said Scott Golightly, a senior principal consultant at Keane, Utah, who has experienced the frustration of trying to work with a designer. "If more designers and developers use XAML as a standard way of exchanging information about the user interface, I think we will see a lot fewer boring applications." Golightly acknowledged that some designers won't use anything but the Macintosh-- but they may face more resistance from corporate developers and solution providers once Expression ships.

"If there are designers that only use a Mac, then I will not be able to share the XAML that makes up the design with them and I will have to spend a lot of time re-creating their design in code,"Golightly said. "It could ultimately lead me to look for a different designer that uses a file format that works with my development tool."

Microsoft, for its part, agreed some designers will likely stay with their traditional Macintosh tools but noted that many of the new Web-based designers are running Windows.

"As much as 80 percent of designers focused on Web and interactive design it turns out are on Windows workstations," said Forest Key, a product manager at Microsoft." There is the mystique of the Mac in the design community but not so in the Web interactive community."

Scott Stansfield, CEO Vertigo Software, a Point Richmond, Calif.-based Microsoft ISV partner, said it's not a stretch.

"I slowly weaned [my designers] off the Macintosh three years ago," said Stansfield. "We do all of our design work in Windows. It's too much trouble to switch between Mac and Windows."

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